San Mateo County Slow to Improve Conditions for Bicyclists and Pedestrians

Cycling commuter crossing Middlefield Road, Menlo Park. Flickr photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/bike/##Richard Masoner##

The wheels are turning slowly in the movement to improve biking and walking conditions in San Mateo County as a lack of cohesive political will leaves little traction for any real changes.

A new plan drafted by the Peninsula’s twenty sprawling cities is bringing some overdue attention to the need for safer streets, but critics say it comes with no guarantee of action and sidesteps some of the area’s biggest obstacles.

“There are some things the cycling community has repeatedly asked for for over three or four years that have been ignored,” said Carlos Babcock, community advocacy coordinator for the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition (SVBC). “But we are happy that they’re actually making a concerted effort for both bike and pedestrian issues. It’s the first time it’s ever going to include a pedestrian plan, as well.”

The San Mateo County Comprehensive Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan would update an 11-year-old blueprint for a countywide bikeway network, marked primarily with signage and some striped bike lanes, as well identifying focus areas to make pedestrian improvements. However, advocates say the plan creates an often inconvenient and spotty network of bike routes, doesn’t compel cities to actually implement the changes, and fails to address fundamental issues such as dangerous freeway crossings.

“There’s really no overriding leadership,” said Caryl Gay, Peninsula advocate for the SVBC, who described the plan as a “wish list” pieced together by a disjointed collection of municipalities. “There’s nobody at the county level to shepherd projects through to completion.”

Municipalities can use the plan as a guideline for implementing and obtaining funding for projects, but “if a city doesn’t want to submit a project for funding, they don’t have to,” said Gay. It does go as far as recommending that each city hire a bicycle-pedestrian coordinator, but in a geographic area spread so thin, “that’s a really unrealistic and not a very cost-effective way of doing planning and implementation.”

“This bottom-up style of government is one of the unique features of San Mateo County. We need a countywide network that will serve cyclists that are going the entire length of the Peninsula,” she said.

The lack of coordination between the county’s numerous city and transit agencies seems to lead to finger-pointing, leaving cycling commuters to suffer the results of a patchwork bike network, advocates said. Despite their lobbying efforts, dangerous freeway crossings and indirect bike routes remain on the list of major deterrents to cycling not addressed by the plan.

One of the largest bureaucratic obstacles to improving street safety around freeway intersections is Caltrans, the state’s highway agency, which has jurisdiction. Narrow bridges, a lack of bike facilities, and high volumes of car traffic accessing freeways like 101 present hazards intimidating enough to discourage most residents from cycling.

However, “the cities have no authority to make [improvements] happen,” said Steve Vanderlip of Bike San Mateo County. “That’s a huge issue that’ll take a lot of money and a lot of pressure from a lot of people to get done.”

Advocates also bemoan the plan’s one-mile diversion of the north-south bicycle route from Middlefield Road connecting North Fair Oaks and Redwood City. Project Manager John Hoang says it is necessary due to dangerous conditions on that stretch of the arterial road, including fast car traffic and risky railroad crossings. However, despite the many businesses and public institutions the road serves, there is currently no plan to improve conditions for cycling.

C/CAG, the county-wide agency managing the project, expects to approve the final plan in May, but with a public comment deadline of April 15, “there’s not a lot of time to address those comments,” said Gay. “I’m not sure if they just think accepting the comments is adequate or if they have to try to address them in some way.”

Hoang said that although C/CAG will be making an effort to incorporate concerns into the current draft plan, comments on specific parts in the plan will need to be addressed by the individual municipalities.

The prevailing “pass the buck” attitude doesn’t seem to be showing any sign of change on the horizon, let alone a fundamental shift toward safer streets. What’s included in the plan “tends to be the low-hanging fruit”, said Gay, who noted that anything that interferes with car traffic or requires major capital investments isn’t even on the table.

“Bicycling is still perceived as a marginal activity in San Mateo County. We still have a long way to go for it to be considered a normal mode of transportation,” she said.

Elected officials and members of San Mateo Bike and Ped Advisory Committee who didn't show for a workshop on the county bike plan. Photo: Bryan Goebel
  • That last picture is very telling.

    I’ve been biking A TON around Redwood City, San Carlos, Menlo Park and Palo Alto these last couple months and it definitely not a place for the faint of heart. Personally, I don’t mind because I can keep up with traffic (sort of, speeding is rampant down here) and I can handle the rush of being buzzed by 6 inches by an SUV doing 40 mph. However, I would never recommend biking down here. Also, you really need to route plan and be aware of major and significant gaps in whatever route you end up choosing to take.

    On that note, parking in bike lanes, cars speeding up to turn right in front of you (nearly every day I get this, I hear the engine rev up and then the next thing I know a car is sliding in front of me), significant lack of bike parking, and rampant phone use by drivers are some of my biggest complaints about Peninsula cycling.

    During the week I’m on the flats and ride up into the hills on the weekends. Most everyone is very courteous IF they see you, but the biggest problem is that most of the time they don’t – whether it be because they are on their cell phone, digging around by the radio, or not properly scrapping their windows in the morning.

    “Advocates also bemoan the plan’s one-mile diversion of the north-south bicycle route from Middlefield Road connecting North Fair Oaks and Menlo Park. Project Manager John Hoang says it is necessary due to dangerous conditions on that stretch of the arterial road, including fast car traffic and risky railroad crossings. However, despite the many businesses and public institutions the road serves, there is currently no plan to improve conditions for cycling”

    Actually, this is one of the most pleasant parts of Middlefield Rd. I think you might have meant to say Redwood City to Menlo Park as Woodside/Middlefield to 5th/Middlefield (North Fair Oaks “downtown”) is crazy.

    I want to leave that comment but now dug into the document and see that they want to divert cyclists up to Bay Rd and back down 5th which would be a travesty. There will still be a ton of cyclists on Middlefield on this stretch as there are MANY businesses that serve the latino community, not to mention that it is really the only straight shot through the neighborhood due to the RR tracks.

    On that same note, there needs to be MUCH better outreach to said latino community on both cycling skills but also how to drive around cyclists. Bicycling is a fact of life down in North Fair Oaks and it needs to be acknowledged and fostered, not ignored and pushed out to Bay Rd.

    “Narrow bridges, a lack of bike facilities, and high volumes of car traffic accessing freeways like 101 present hazards intimidating enough to discourage most residents from cycling.”

    This is true if you need to get from one side of the great 101 divide to the other, which is not the case for a huge majority of people on the peninsula. This is an excuse used by cities to not take action. “Oh, Caltrans is stopping us, not our fault.” That is BS. The hills are also not a problem as most of the population and destinations are on the flats between 101 and Almeda De Las Pulgas.

    I’m with the activists that are upset about Middlefield. That is a JOKE. Absolute joke. There is plenty of ROW space and many in the community bike on the sidewalk (which is extremely narrow) because of excessive speeds and very aggressive driving. Atherton/Menlo folks just want their non-101/El Camino alternative to stay free of clutter (i.e. cyclists) so they can continue to speed through North Fair Oaks.

  • Aaron Bialick

    Thanks for catching the geographical error, Mike – changed it.

  • Also, Chesnut has RR tracks so that excuse and route change is also BS. There is no reason that stretch of Middlefield needs to be a 4 lane freeway with 45 degree parking and narrow sidewalks. There are a lot of pedestrians and cyclists and the area demands better access. Come on RWC and County, step up and provide adequate infrastructure.

  • jd

    Having just recently tried to ride across Palo Alto and Menlo Park and into RWC, it is amazing how poor the bike infrastructure is in RWC. I plotted a route best I could, but there is simply no good bike route. It truly is an issue that needs real attention. Palo Alto has great bicycle infrastructure and MV and Menlo Park have decent ones, but RWC is a huge hole. And the roads are designed in such a way that there is no good shortcut through neighborhood streets. I really hope to see San Mateo county take cycling seriously and address these problems and to get moving on their bike plan.

  • jd, there isn’t a good way thru RWC at all. And you are right about the street lay out, downtown has a grid on the N/S axis while the rest of the peninsula is laid out off of El Camino which follows the angle of the Peninsula.

    How did you enjoy Middlefield from 5th to Woodside? How many SUVs got close enough for you to reach out and shake the passengers hand?

    RWC does have a couple good bike lanes, but they do not flow in anyway. There are very large gaps, then you’ll have a lane for a couple blocks, then you get dumped onto a 4 lane road. Also, ECR has sharrows. Are you kidding me? Who, besides 20 somethings in shape, are going to take the lane with cars going in excess of 40 mph? They don’t, they ride on the sidewalk.

  • Greg

    I used to bike from Burlingame to Palo Alto regularly. By far the worst part of the route was the stretch in Redwood City from Woodside Rd. to the Atherton border on Middlefield. There are bike lanes that disappear at unpredictable intervals, so that you’ll be riding along and be suddenly confronted with a choice between rear-ending a car parked in the parking space that’s replaced the bike lane or veering into heavy traffic going 40+ mph.

    There is no good alternative, though, as deviating from the main roads in this area (and most places on the peninsula, actually) will lead you into a maddening maze of curving residential streets that either leave you completely lost or dump you right back out on to the same few arterial roads. The best thing that San Mateo could do for bicyclists (and drivers) would be to increase the connectivity of the street grid to give cyclists an alternative to El Camino.

  • Ryan

    San Mateo County isn’t ideal for bike commuting, that’s for sure. But I wouldn’t call its cities “sprawling”, since most of them are long established cities, hemmed in by mountains and bay along a rail corridor.

    Streetsblog is so dismissive of the peninsula, even though it probably has the greatest potential of all our inner suburban sub-regions for smart growth.

  • Kevin

    Even living in Daly City, on the border with SF, is bad for bicycle commuting . The major corridors like John Daly, Mission, Junipero Serra do not have lanes of them. I wouldn’t be complaining if there weren’t any alternative side streets I can take.

    On the weekdays I’m biking to work in SF, using lanes like Alemany and Valencia. On the weekends when I’m grocery shopping I’m on the sidewalk, it feels so marginalizing 🙁

  • Ryan, yes and no. It is sprawling in the sense that there the arterial roads that are really the only way to get from A to B. And those arterials are dominated by prioritized, fast moving vehicular traffic to the detriment of pedestrians and cyclists.

    But one thing the Peninsula does have on its side, as you mention, is the historical downtown cores and their rail access.

    But you put those two together and right now the “sprawl” is winning.

  • Aaron Bialick

    I think low density and car-centric development are the primary characteristics that warrant the term “sprawling”, and despite the livability benefits that the Caltrain and BART stations do bring to those Peninsula cities, those features are still fundamentally dominant there.

  • On that same note Aaron, there isn’t that much actual TOD available on the peninsula. RWC has it in the plan, but none of the residential aspects have come to be yet. Mountain View, more so. San Mateo, less so. Palo Alto, only because of the university. San Carlos, a new condo building near the station but countered by amble parking. San Antonio station, some housing but commercial is separated by 4+ lane arterials.

    But there is so much potential. Overall the main part of the peninsula is flat and the distances between towns is about a 15 min bike ride or 3-4 min train ride. I think a great first step would be to promote more housing in the downtown areas which would help foster a stronger business aspect to counter the malls (Hillsdale, EPA, etc). Providing cycling infrastructure and bike blvds would also be a nice start (direct routes, none of this 1 mile detour BS). I’d say better signage, but really ANY signage would be nice. Better street lighting, wider sidewalks, more bike parking.

  • resident

    Redwood City will continue to have a bad bicycle network until a strong cycling advocacy group forms to represent only Redwood City (not just the SVBC)…Redwood City residents are just too busy to care. There is a weak advisory council based around Redwood City, but it is mostly made up of people from other cities. The lame state of RWC’s bicycle network is a fair representation of the residents of the city.

  • resident, what is this weak advisory council you speak of? I want to at least contact them and maybe provide another voice.

  • Devil’s Slide Pedestrian & Bicycle Crossing: http://www.scribd.com/full/45820096?access_key=key-26kk5c2hkdyp9ngdrujo

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